Parasitic worms and their potential for protecting people from asthma are being examined by Dundee scientists.
Experts have known for some time that an infection of roundworms can prevent the development of allergies but it has never been properly understood.
The parasites live in the intestines of people and animals and interfere with the parts of the immune system which cause allergies.
Now, research led by Dr Henry McSorley, from Dundee University’s School of Life Sciences, has discovered the worms secrete a molecule which blocks signals between cells of the immune system.
That molecule, called HpBARI, was enough to prevent the development of asthma in mice and researchers have found that it blocks the same pathway in human cells.
More research is needed but it is hoped this could lead to developments in medicine to treat allergic diseases.
Dr McSorley said: “Parasitic worms are complex creatures that evolved to survive inside our body.
“One of the ways they did this was by developing sophisticated techniques to avoid elimination by our immune system.
“They release molecules which block immune responses that would otherwise kill them. Importantly, the same immune responses that kill parasitic worms are also responsible for causing allergies and asthma.
“Populations with high rates of worm infections tend to have less asthma. In the developed world over the last century we have been very successful at getting rid of worms but have seen a huge rise in allergic diseases at the same time. Therefore, we believe that parasite secretions could contain new treatments for allergic diseases.”